Navigating the discourse of dependency: Welfare-reliant mothers in college an institutional ethnography


By bhadmin February 2, 2021

The goal of this ethnographic case study is to produce a contextual, empirical analysis of the experience of welfare-reliant mothers who are attempting to get a college degree following the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The policy’s emphasis on work-first has prompted changes in funding streams, service orientation, and institutional practices of welfare agencies serving these women in ways that are not adequately understood. Using an Institutional Ethnography (IE) approach (Smith, 1987; 2005; 2006), I take the everyday material experience of nineteen welfare-reliant women in a state-funded college support program as a starting point for understanding how practices oriented toward satisfying the requirements of the reformed welfare system shape the women’s activities and the likelihood that they are able to access and persist in college. Consistent with the IE mode of inquiry I expanded the type of data gathered to include a close examination of the regulatory texts that organize interactions between the women, welfare caseworkers, and college support staff. I conducted interviews with the women, program staff, and legal advocates; attended student workshops and case reviews; conducted observations in the county assistance office; and followed listserv conversations among program staff across Pennsylvania. The study found that welfare reform has reshaped institutional practices in ways that are often problematic for poor mothers attempting to improve their economic situation through attainment of a college degree. Narrow notions of personal responsibility and dependency reflected in these practices coalesce with neoliberal values of efficiency and cost containment to activate the ‘work-first’ rationale embodied in the federal legislation. Institutional technologies such as accountability codes and performance measures create incentives at the local level to divert college-bound recipients to the low-wage labor market even when a college support program was available. These institutional practices and tools hold the women accountable for their educational success while simultaneously erecting barriers that make success unlikely. Thus, the logic of work-first operates in ways that uphold the women’s exclusion from the opportunities that come from a college education and in doing so recreates their place in the field of low-wage work.

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